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The Skins: It's Your Name, Not Your Game : Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino, Zoeller Still the Players Fans Want to See

November 28, 1987|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

LA QUINTA — Four of the most recognizable names in golf, their bank accounts exceeded only by their reputations, are here to play the Skins Game, possibly golf's biggest exhibition.

And although Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller are trading on their names more than their games right now, it probably doesn't matter.

So what in the world is Palmer doing here?

Palmer, 58, needs the $450,000 in prize money about as much as he needs to make another commercial. He will earn an estimated $8 million in endorsements alone this year.

According to Sports Marketing News, Palmer pushes products as America's most trusted person since Walter Cronkite. Trouble is, lately Palmer has played golf like Cronkite, too.

Maybe he'll birdie a few holes during the two-day Skins, which would certainly change his luck because coming into this made-for-television putt-for-dough event, Palmer hasn't been able to win a tournament to save his, well, skins.

The last time Palmer won a tournament was in June, 1985. The event was the Seniors' TPC. In 17 events on the Senior Tour this year, Palmer's best finish was a tie for third. His earnings are $128,910, 19th on the Seniors' money list.

No matter. He is also, quite probably, No. 1 on the list of golfing's biggest names. That's why Palmer is here.

But wouldn't the Skins Game be more sporting if the best golfers were playing instead?

"Thanks a lot," Palmer said and laughed.

"I suppose something could be said for that. You could take four players--God, I don't know how to say this without making somebody mad--let's just say anyone that has won over three quarters of a million dollars this year, and put them in a skins game. If people didn't recognize the name, though, they wouldn't have an audience.

"That's part of what has made the Skins Game," Palmer said. "People recognize the name. If they don't, chances are you are going to lose 50% of the audience."

Chances are that's not going to happen. Skins Game television audiences have been building each year since 1983, according to the ratings.

From 5.0 to 6.3 to 6.5 and to 7.0 last year, a figure that included an 8.9 rating for the second day, which was higher than the Masters at 8.0, the U.S. Open at 6.5, the PGA at 4.8 and the British Open at 3.8 this year.

Last year's Skins Game was received in more than 6 million homes. The concept of the Skins seems to have caught on.

"It is really the All-Star game of golf," said Don Ohlmeyer, who teamed with Barry Frank of Trans World International to originate the show.

Each hole that is won outright is one skin. The first six holes are worth $15,000 apiece, the next six $25,000 and the final six holes are worth $35,000 each. If no golfer wins a hole outright, the money from that hole carries over to the next.

To Palmer, that's a pretty straightforward concept.

"If you make a birdie at the right time, everything else doesn't make a damn bit of difference," he said.

At Desert Highlands in 1984, Nicklaus won $240,000 on a single hole. The next year at Bear Creek, Nicklaus again won one skin, but it was worth only $15,000. And last year at PGA West's Stadium Course, which is also the site of this year's Skins, Nicklaus was shut out.

"It's sudden death," Palmer said. "Either you win or you don't. That's happened to the best players in the world. I suppose if you want to get morbid about it, you could say people want to see you miss the putt that's going to cost you one-, two- or three-hundred thousand dollars."

Palmer and Nicklaus are the only two golfers to have played in each of the four previous Skins Games. Tom Watson and Gary Player have also played.

But don't look on the Skins roster for the names of this year's major winners.

"All right, name who won the majors this year," Ohlmeyer said.

Do you know Larry Nelson, the PGA winner? Scott Simpson, the U.S. Open champion? Larry Mize, winner of the Masters, or Nick Faldo, British Open champion? Well, they aren't here. Neither is Curtis Strange, the PGA's top money winner.

"We don't say the Skins will be the best golfers of the year," Ohlmeyer said. "It's who the people want to see play."

Zoeller is back because he is the defending champion. Palmer got a sponsor's exemption. Nicklaus and Trevino were picked by a panel headed by Ohlmeyer, Frank and PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman.

Palmer believes that somewhere down the line, the winners of the major tournaments or maybe the top four money winners will compete in the Skins.

"That's not the point (of the Skins), but eventually that will happen, I suppose," he said. "By that time, maybe the guys will be recognizable enough that it will work. I suspect there will be some changes made."

Palmer himself may be one of the victims of change. Some believe this will be his last Skins Game. But don't count on it.

"As long as I'm attracted to them and they are attracted to me, I suppose that's all that's necessary," Palmer said.

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